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The New Party Must Dispense with Immigrant Bashing

The Left’s Challenge in Germany

by JEFF BALE

A new left-wing political party in Germany is continuing to gain broad support as September federal elections approach–and is coming under increasing attack.

The Left Party (LP) has shaken up Germany’s usual electoral process with its calls for greater welfare spending and job creation. The mainstream media have responded by denouncing the LP for pandering to right-wing populist politics.

The debate reached a new level when the LP’s best-known figure, Oskar Lafontaine–a former leader in the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), who resigned and helped found the LP–proclaimed at a June rally that "the state has a duty to protect men and women from foreign workers who take their jobs away for lower pay." Lafontaine used the politically charged term "fremdarbeiter," a word for "immigrant worker" most often associated with the Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in Germany. Immigrants have come under heightened attack in recent years as unemployment has hovered around the 5 million mark. Especially in the east–the former home of a Communist Party-run regime before reunification in 1990–where jobless rates can reach as high as 25 percent, neo-Nazi groups have made inroads by scapegoating immigrant workers. The neo-Nazi National Party of Germany won seats in the state parliament of Saxony in recent elections.

Lafontaine is wrong to use rhetoric that plays into such anti-immigrant scapegoating. His words can only strengthen the right.

Plus, he has given his opponents in the SPD a perfect tool to use against him. Their torrent of abuse has nothing to do with making the LP a stronger left-wing party. Instead, the aim is to confuse the debate over the continual cuts to the welfare state–carried out by the country’s traditional left-wing party, the SPD–and whether there is an alternative to such neoliberal policies.

Since the LP’s creation earlier in the summer, that debate has dominated the headlines in Germany on an almost daily basis. But now, the debate about what Lafontaine did or didn’t mean has pushed these real issues–and the LP’s main critiques of the current political situation in Germany–off the front pages.

The Left Party was formed as an alliance between the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the East German Communist Party, and the Electoral Alternative for Social Justice (WASG, in German). The WASG was itself formed last winter, largely by unionists and other members of the governing SPD who rejected the neoliberal policies pursued by the government since taking office in 1997.

The Left Party calls for job security, a living wage, a shorter workweek, taxing the rich to pay for social investment, secured pensions and health care, training and education for all, peace, disarmament and–crucially–a party against the Nazis. The pundits and SPD politicians are worried because this program is attracting a significant numbers of voters–enough to potentially prevent either the SPD or its conservative rival, the Christian Democrats, from winning a majority in parliament to form the next government.

Their attack on the LP is similar to the lesser-evil logic in last year’s presidential election in the U.S., where Ralph Nader and his supporters endured unending abuse for daring to pose an alternative. In fact, the New York Times must have dusted off one of their old attack editorials against Nader when it recently denounced the LP as "spoilers."

Because of disillusionment with the SPD, the CDU and its candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel, were thought to be a shoo-in this fall. But the most recent Stern magazine poll showed a significant drop in support for the CDU–meaning that even in coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, they wouldn’t have a majority in parliament.

While the SPD is bouncing back, the LP continues to poll about 12 percent across the country, which could make it the third-largest party in German politics after the elections. This strong support for a left-wing electoral alliance is another expression of the continent-wide rejection of a bosses’ Europe based on neoliberal policies.

Still, the LP’s progressive program doesn’t make up for Lafontaine’s backward anti-immigrant rhetoric, or for the party’s weak positions on questions of oppression.

In fact, the official response on the WASG Web site to Lafontaine’s speech was an interview with an historian claiming that the term "fremdarbeiter" isn’t unique to the Nazi era–as well as a quote of a Turkish factory worker saying that people use this word at work all the time. The WASG site also recently had a link to another site that attacked Guido Westerwelle, the openly gay leader of the Free Democrats–complete with a song with nasty homophobic lyrics.

Left-wing and socialist activists inside the Left Party have been right to defend the party as the best way to fight the right. The WASG was one of the few political parties to join counter-protests when the Nazis marched in Berlin in May–and, unsurprisingly, many of the traditional left groups and commentators who are attacking the LP today refused to confront the fascists.

But it is also crucial for the left to call out backward ideas from Lafontaine and other figures in the LP. Not only do they give the LP’s frantic critics an easy opening to obscure the real issues, but they hold back the struggle for a more just Germany.

JEFF BALE writes for the Socialist Worker.